By , on Business Planning.

Marketing via e-mail can be a cost effective way to increase sales, but make sure your campaign is CAN-SPAM compliant.

E-mail marketing is a low cost form of marketing that should be part of most business owners’ marketing plans. But do take care: e-mail commercial messages must be sent according to the guidelines of the The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 that went into effect on January 1, 2004 (CAN-SPAM stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act). CAN-SPAM regulates e-mail messages that are *not* “transactional or relationship” in content (see http://www.fcc.gov/guides/spam-unwanted-text-messages-and-email and http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2005/01/primarypurp.htm).

There are three types of e-mail messages you may want to send out to customers, and potential customers, on a regular basis:

1). Personal follow up offers or reminders based on an established and ongoing business relationship.

Here’s an example of a relationship e-mail: In June, Caren Weinstein, owner of Cmail, a relationship marketing company, sent me an e-mail asking if I wanted to do a 4th of July card mailing. The e-mail prompted me to work with her to customize a “Dog Days of Summer” card that I send out to customers and colleagues each year. Cmail’s e-mail inquiry was relational because I’ve agreed to use the company’s services for several mailings each year.

2) Transactional follow up e-mail messages.

Sending e-mail order confirmations to customers is standard practice. Some vendors send a second e-mail confirming the product has shipped, and may include UPS tracking number or a web page where customers can check order status. If your web site ordering and shipping system doesn’t provide real time shipment tracking information, you can still e-mail customers your contact information so they can check order status prior to delivery. Send at least one e-mail with an estimate of when customers can expect delivery. Transactional follow-up messages can even apply to “off-line” sales of goods and services: send your customer an e-mail update on delivery status or, for services, project completion status.

3) Commercial e-mail messages.

A commercial e-mail is one sent with the main purpose of selling a product or service to the recipient, and are regulated by the CAN-SPAM Act.

Examples: I regularly receive e-mail announcements from artists highlighting art available for sale, and I receive invitations to attend workshops given by local creativity and business coaches. Since the main focus of the e-mails are for me to “buy,” and they are not part of a subscription or service I’m currently purchasing, the e-mails are considered commercial messages.

The CAN-SPAM Act commercial e-mail guidelines are outlined below in brief, but you should also check the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines before sending out any commercial e-mail announcements (see especially http://www.business.ftc.gov/documents/bus61-can-spam-act-compliance-guide-business).

Here are the major guidelines:

a) Your e-mail’s “From,” “To,” and routing information – including the originating domain name and email address – must be accurate and identify the person who initiated the email.

b) The subject line cannot mislead the recipient about the contents or subject matter of the message. You know the subject lines they’re referring to: The subject line “Exclusive Benefit” heads up an e-mail promoting mortgage services, and the subject “re:[16]” heads up an e-mail selling medications online. I received an e-mail earlier this week with the headline, “Important Monday Morning News.”

When I opened the e-mail (which I did only because of the subject line), it told me that “You have been pre-approved for a new loan.” Definitely misleading.

c) Give recipients an opt-out method. You must provide a return email address or another Internet-based response mechanism that allows a recipient to ask you not to send future email messages to that email address, and you must honor the requests. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is considering “shortening from ten days to three the time a sender may take before honoring a recipient’s opt-out request (see http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2005/05/canspamfrn.htm).”

d) Your message must contain clear and conspicuous notice that the message is an advertisement or solicitation and you must include your physical postal address.

For home-based business owners who are uncomfortable about releasing their home address commercially, you’ll be glad to know that the FTC is proposing to clarify “that Post Office boxes and private mailboxes established pursuant to United States Postal Service regulations constitute ‘valid physical postal addresses’ within the meaning of the Act (again, see http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2005/05/canspamfrn.htm).”

Many otherwise smart small business owners send me what are obviously bulk commercial e-mails. While I have a relationship with the business owner, my e-mail address is not listed in the “To” line, and the only message in the e-mail is a request for me to buy. Because the e-mail is strictly a sales pitch, it would not be considered a “relationship message.” But they don’t provide me with an opt-out method for future sales e-mails, nor do they include a physical mailing address, meaning the e-mails are not CAN-SPAM compliant.

If you are still interested in including e-mail marketing as part of your marketing plan despite the rigid rules, here are three essential “to-dos” before you begin:

1). Organize your contact information so that you can customize your commercial e-mails as much as possible. Some of the best suggestions for organizing contact information posted to the “Minding Your Own Business” networking group at Ryze.com include using software (Act!, MS Outlook and Excel) and handheld Organizers.

Note past sales information, needs and/or requests for each of your contacts.

2). Set up an e-mail data-base for bulk mailings. Double opt-in, where your customer signs up to be on your e-mail list and then re-confirms before officially “making it” to your list, is best (double-opt in lists help limit unwarranted SPAM complaints). Check with your web hosting service to see if they provide announce list services. You can also use YahooGroups, BraveNet, or other free services. Fee-based e-mail list management services, which let you import your contact list without requiring “opt-ins,” are Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com) and Vertical Response iBuilder (http://www.verticalresponse.com/products/). Both Constant Contact and Vertical Response provide automated “opt-out” services and claim that their services are CAN-SPAM compliant.

3). Keep detailed records of your list and campaigns: You should be able to easily respond to any SPAM complaints with information on when the e-mail recipient opted-in, what type of e-mails you’ve sent, and how many e-mails you’ve sent him or her. Honor all opt-out requests immediately, and monitor your system to ensure it’s working properly. Be sure to continually educate yourself on the requirements of, and changes to, the CAN-SPAM Act. Bookmark the“Online Advertising and Marketing” page at the Federal Trade Commissions web site.

Be systematic in your approach to e-mail marketing, treat all e-mail sales pitches as commercial messages to avoid legal pitfalls and create compelling e-mail sales copy. If done legally, e-mail marketing really can help you lower marketing costs, grow your sales, and set your business apart from your competitors.